A writer’s learning curve

June 19, 2014 by · 1 Comment 

image courtesy of photobucket.com

image courtesy of photobucket.com

Though the homes in my neighborhood are equipped with modern necessities such as central air and electricity, it’s easy at times to think we sit on the border of unspoiled territory. Because for the most part, we do.

Across the road from my house sits about 30,000 acres of national forest, which is home to all manner of creepy crawlies. The boundary between civilized and not is clearly marked by a nearly straight line of neatly-kept backyards and a foreboding tree line of towering oaks.

Of course, neither man nor beast keeps to his own side. We all mingle with each other from time to time. Miles of trails leading into the mountains provide all a guy like me needs for feed his inner redneck. And as if to even things out a bit, everything from bear to deer to snakes to coyotes have been seen wandering our streets.

Most of us pay little mind to such intrusions, believing that the animals have just as much right to snoop around our homes as we have theirs. But there is one person in particular who is uneasy about the whole thing.

I speak of the kid down the road. Sixteenish and free for the summer. I remember the summer I turned sixteen, three glorious months of getting into more trouble than I’d ever gotten into in my life. Ask his father, and he’ll say he almost wishes his son would get into that same sort of trouble. Not a lot, mind you. But at least a little. After all, he’s sixteen. Trouble’s supposed to find you at that age.

But it hasn’t found him, mostly because he refuses to go outside. His days are spent staring out his bedroom window and writing about what he sees. He wants to write a book, he told his father. He’s serious about it. And while his father is supportive, he also knows it’s an excuse. His son doesn’t like his new home. Doesn’t like the small town or the big woods. He wants to go home to the city.

The family moved here from the city last year as the result of a job transfer. All this wildness suits mom and dad just fine, but not the boy. He woke up one morning in April to find a bear in the backyard. Found a snake on the deck a few weeks later. Though he refuses to admit it, they think it was all just a little too Wild Kingdom for him. So when school let out and he was free to do what he wanted, he retreated to the safety of the indoors.

He says he’s spending his time wisely. He’s writing. Working. There isn’t any time for much of anything else.

I heard about all of this the other night while out for an evening walk. His father was putting up a new mailbox, I stopped to say hello, and things just sort of went from there.

“He really is a good storyteller,” he told me. “Just wish he wouldn’t stay inside all the time. That can’t be healthy, can it?”

No.

Not for a kid. And especially not for a writer.

There are a lot of would-be authors out there who think it’s fine to stare out of their window and write about the world. They take their journey within themselves because they’re unwilling or afraid to go out.

I can’t blame them for that. I was once the kid down the road, too.

Not afraid of bears and snakes, but afraid to go out the door. To face life in all its glory and pain. Give me a nice desk and some paper instead. Let life leave me alone so I could write about it.

Sounds a little strange, doesn’t it? But that’s what I thought. And that’s what a lot of authors think.

There is a learning curve to writing, of course. First come the simple words and simpler thoughts, which through countless hours of practice becomes better words and greater thoughts. No one denies this.

But there is another learning curve to writing that often goes overlooked, and that is the experience of living. Of plunging headlong into life and daring to swim in both the clear and the murky waters, and then using pen and paper as a towel to dry yourself off.

You have to hurt. And suffer. You have to love and hate and believe and doubt. You have to fail and succeed.

And the only way to do that is to go out and live before you come in to write.

Why write at all?

May 8, 2014 by · 11 Comments 

Screen shot 2013-09-02 at 12.27.55 PMI’m still hoping that one of these days I’ll learn not to turn on the news. There have been times—long periods in my life—when I’ve done without it to amazing results. The world reduces itself to the most basic elements when you are ignorant of what’s going on beyond your front door. Things don’t seem that bad.

But then I always go back eventually, checking the internet or the cable news once in the morning and then again in the evening. I tell myself there are too many ignorant people in the world to count myself among them, even if that ignorance really does contain a large portion of bliss. As an adult, I have a responsibility to know what’s going on. It’s a duty.

I’m sort of between the two right now. I know some of what’s going on out there, but not a lot. That’s how it is in the middle of writing a book. Getting those pages in every day takes precedent over much of anything else. I don’t have time to tune in, and so I tune out. I figure the world can carry on without me for this little while.

I finished up a little early the other day, though, and decided maybe I’d just take a few minutes to hope on a few websites. Not long, just a few minutes. Sort of like stepping outside to lick your finger and stick it in the air to see which way the wind was blowing. In the span of those few minutes, I learned that 200 girls had been kidnapped in Africa and threatened with being sold into sexual slavery. I learned that a young woman had won an award for filming her own abortion. I learned that climate change is now climate disruption and we’re all going to either drown or die of thirst, and if you happen to disagree with that notion you’re a Neanderthal. And then I shut my computer before I could learn anything else.

I sat there for a little bit, looking out the window on our little neighborhood. The window was open, letting in a bright sun and a breeze that smelled of blooming flowers and cut grass. A guy down the street was throwing a ball to his dog. Two kids next door were shooting hoops in the road. The retired couple who just moved in across the way were planting some rose bushes. It was a scene likely played out in thousands of neighborhoods in America right then, maybe yours, too, but its commonness in no way tarnished the beauty of it in my mind. That little scene I looked down upon, that was life. That was people trying to get by, trying to enjoy things despite it all.

The wind kicked up just for a moment, just enough to sneak through the big oak outside the window and ruffle the papers I’d just written on. They curled in on themselves and then went tumbling into a pile on the floor. I gathered them up and sat there on the carpet, trying to order the pages from memory, and a funny question crossed my mind:

Why are you doing this?

It took me a minute to figure out exactly what “this” was. I thought at first I was asking myself why I was sitting down on the floor with a stack of papers in my hand, but that didn’t sound right. Too obvious. And then I thought maybe the question was more about why I was sitting upstairs to begin with, and not outside enjoying the spring day. But that wasn’t it, either. No, it was more fundamental than either of those, something that struck me deep down where I most live.

The question was why I write at all.

The question was why bother.

Why spend so much time and suffer through so much stress to write books in a country where most people would rather turn on a television than read a chapter? Why go through the endless heartbreak of being a single shouting voice among the tens of thousands of other shouting voices? Why believe that in some small but significant way, what I do can pause a fallen world from its steady pace toward the edge of some great abyss?

Why bother?

And you know what? I’ll have to think about that and get back with you. Because right now, this moment, I really don’t know.

The value of our art

April 14, 2014 by · 3 Comments 

image courtesy of google images. Spangled Blengins, Boy King Islands. One is a young Tuskorhorian, the other a human headed Dortherean by Henry Darger

image courtesy of google images. Spangled Blengins, Boy King Islands. One is a young Tuskorhorian, the other a human headed Dortherean by Henry Darger

Let me tell you about Henry Darger, the man who wrote one of the most detailed and bizarre books in history.

Never heard of him? Me neither. At least, not until I happened to stumble upon his story a few weeks ago. Seems strange that someone who did something so grand could be so unknown, doesn’t it? But it’s true. In fact, you could even say that’s why Henry was so extraordinary.

image courtesy of google images

image courtesy of google images

He was a janitor. Nothing so special about that, but nothing so wrong with it, either. There is no correlation between who a person is and what that person does for a living. Einstein was a patent clerk. Faulkner a mailman. Henry Darger mopped floors.

An unassuming man. A quiet man. He never married, never really had friends. Just a regular guy living a regular life, one of the faceless masses that occupy so much of the world who are here for a short while and then gone forever.

Henry left in 1973.

There are no accounts of his funeral. I don’t know if anyone attended at all, though I like to think they did. I like to think there was a crowd huddled around his casket that day to bid him farewell.

It is an unfortunate fact of life that so many people are discovered to have been truly extraordinary only after their passing. Such was the case with Henry. A few days after his passing, his landlord went through his apartment to ready it for rent. What he found was astonishing.

What he found hidden among Henry’s possessions was a manuscript. Its title may give you a clue as to the story’s scope and magnitude:

THE STORY OF THE VIVIAN GIRLS, IN WHAT IS KNOWN AS THE REALMS OF THE UNREAL, OF THE GLANDECO-ANGELINIAN WAR STORM, CAUSED BY THE CHILD SLAVE REBELLION

Did you get that? If not, I can’t blame you. I had to read the title three times to even understand a little of it, and that doesn’t count the time I actually wrote it out.

The breadth and scope of Henry’s book went well beyond epic. The manuscript itself contained 15,000 pages. Over nine million words. Over 300 watercolor pictures coinciding with the story. Some of the illustrations were so large they measured ten feet wide.

A lifetime’s worth of work. Years upon years of solitary effort, hundreds of thousands of hours spent writing and painting, creating an entire saga of another world.

And all for no apparent reason. Not only did Henry Darger never seek any sort of publication for his work, he never told a soul about it. His book was his dream and his secret alone.

I’ve thought about Henry Darger a lot since I first read about him. Which, as change or fate would have it, just to happened to be the very week my newest novel released. A tough thing, that. You’d think it wouldn’t be, perhaps, but it is. No matter who an author is or how successful he or she may be or how many books or under his or her belt, the most important thing to us all is that our words matter. Matter to others, matter to the world. We want what we say and think and feel to count for something.

But Henry Darger reminds me that none of those things mean anything. In the end, we cannot account for how the world will judge our work, and so, in the end, the world’s opinion really doesn’t matter. Simple as that.

What matters—what counts—is that our words stir not the world, but ourselves. That they conjure in our own hearts and minds a kind of magic that neither the years nor the work can dull. The kind of magic that sustains us in our lonely times and gives our own private worlds meaning. The kind of magic that tinges even the life of a simple janitor with greatness.

And the winner is…

April 7, 2014 by · 2 Comments 

image courtesy of google images

image courtesy of google images

I’ve written (and read) my share of blog posts about the craft of writing, but the following is by far my favorite. I’m reposting it today because I needed a reminder of why I do what I do. Maybe some of you do, too.

Writing Naked

“I write in terror. I have to talk myself into bravery with every sentence, sometimes every syllable.”
–Cynthia Ozick

I took exactly one class in writing. It was about fifteen years ago at the community college and was taught by a real published author whose name I cannot recall. But she was published, and as far as I was concerned that was all the credentials she needed.

The first class turned out to be the most useful. That’s not to say the instruction given in the proceeding eleven weeks of the course wasn’t useful. It was. But that first night alone was worth the money.

The twenty or so people in the class formed a semi-circle around the professor, who stood in behind a wooden podium that was much more intimidating than she. We sat at attention, notebooks ready, eager to have our heads filled with the hidden secrets of literary success.

“Tell me,” she said, “what does one need to write?”

The more outgoing among the class were quick with suggestions:

“Time.”

“Perseverance.”

“Skill.”

“Connections.” (That one was met with a nervous chuckle from the rest of the class.)

“Practice.”

Each was met with an approving nod and so was written down by everyone, myself included. But that really wasn’t what she wanted to hear.

“Those are good suggestions,” she said, “but you’re leaving the most important aspect out. Anyone?”

No one.

“Courage,” she said.

I didn’t really understand that and snickered under my breath. Courage? Soldiers needed courage. Cops needed courage. EMTs and stunt men and bullfighters. But writers? Sitting on your butt and typing on a keyboard did not take courage.

“There are some who might disagree with that,” she said—and to this day I swear she looked at me when she said it—“and I understand. You disagree because you’re writing with your clothes on. By the time you leave here, you’ll be writing naked.”

I’ll admit I almost walked out then. I’d heard about kooky writing classes given by kooky professors who did some pretty strange things in the name of “art.” I was afraid if I stuck around I’d end up dressed in a blue tracksuit with a cup of Kool-Aid in my hand because a comet was passing by to take me to heaven.

I stayed in my seat on the whim she was speaking metaphorically.

“There is no greater fear than to face a blank page,” she said. “It mocks and threatens. It challenges you. Give it power, and it will eat you alive. Face it clothed, and you will fail. The only way to beat the blank page is to attack it naked.”

Twelve of the twenty students raised their hands.

“Wait, wait,” she said, moving her hands in a downward motion. “No, I’m not speaking literally. But I’m not joking, either. Let me ask you something else. Why do people write?”

More hands in the air, which she chose to ignore.

“People write because they must. Because there is a story inside them that is meant to be shared with the world. But having that story inside you doesn’t make you a writer. How you tell that story does. And you tell it through honesty.”

She told us to put our pens down and just listen.

“Writers fail because they come to the page fully clothed. They adorn themselves with fanciful plots and layer themselves with complicated character development. They use flowery prose and words you have to look up in the dictionary. They do this not to impress their readers, but to keep their readers at arm’s length. They’re afraid. Afraid to bare their souls and inject themselves into their work. For that they are cowards.

“Don’t simply tell me that faith saves you, tell me how it almost failed you, too. Don’t tell me about love, speak of your passion. Don’t tell me you’re hurt, let me see your heart breaking. I don’t want to see your talent on the page, I want to see your blood. Dare to be naked before your readers. Because that is writing, and everything else is worthless crap.”

I’ll always remember that. In fact, written on an index card taped to my lamp are these two words—Be Naked. Because she was right, that’s what writing is all about. Fiction or non, poetry or devotional, funny or serious, it doesn’t matter. Our calling is still the same:

To bare ourselves so we may be the mirror the world holds to itself.

* * * * * *

And thanks in no small part to my latest attempt at naked writing, Sylvia Shroades has won a brand new kindle fire in the Litfuse giveaway for The Devil Walks in Mattingly. Thanks to everyone for participating. Congratulations, Sylvia. Let that be the first book you download!

* * * * * *

The winner of last week’s signed book giveaway is Jennifer Essad. Congratulations to you, too Jennifer. I hope you enjoy it.

“Devil” still making the rounds: Week 2

March 27, 2014 by · 5 Comments 

Devil Walks in Mattingly promo picIt’s been a whirlwind couple of weeks since The Devil Walks in Mattingly was officially released March 11. My sincere thanks for continuing to help get the word out.

Here’s some of what’s been going on in the past week:

Interviews

Novel Crossing The Five Books That Changed My Life: Billy Coffey

Litfuse Group Get to know Billy Coffey

katdish.net The Revealing Billy Coffey Multiple Choice Interview

Relz Reviewz Character Spotlight: Meet Billy Coffey’s Jake and Taylor

Maureen Doallas at Writing without Paper Monday Muse: New Interview with Billy Coffey

Faith Village The Story Behind “The Devil Walks in Mattingly”

A Christian Writer’s World THE DEVIL WALKS IN MATTINGLY – Billy Coffey – On Free Book, Plus More (interview and book giveaway)

Reviews

Novel Reviews Billy Coffey’s The Devil Walks in Mattingly Reviewed

Life is a Story The Devil Walks in Mattingly by Billy Coffey

Burton Book Review The Devil Walks in Mattingly by Billy Coffey

By the Book Book Review: The Devil Walks in Mattingly

Just Wondering A book review by Diana Trautwein

Electively Paige Spotlight: The Devil Walks in Mattingly

Regina’s Family Seasons The Devil Walks in Mattingly Book Review

5 Minutes for Books The Devil Walks in Mattingly

JoJo’s Corner Review and Giveaway

Savings in Seconds What’s the local haunt story in your neck of the woods?

Reviews from the Heart The Devil Walks in Mattingly

Goodreads Many great reviews by first time and long time visitors to the town of Mattingly.

Guest spots, Giveaways and other things worth mentioning

BookPage Editor’s Choice for Book of the Day
Screen Shot 2014-03-24 at 9.50.36 AM

Fox News Opinion Page Regrets, remorse, and a boy named Ed
Fox News Logo

 

There’s still time to enter The Devil Walks in Mattingly   Kindle Fire HDX giveaway.

mattingly-400-click

One winner will receive:

  • A Kindle Fire HDX
  • The Devil Walks in Mattingly by Billy Coffey

Enter today by clicking one of the icons below. But hurry, the giveaway ends on April 5th. Winner will be announced April  7th right here on the blog. Watch me give the backstory of the book here.


Don’t miss a moment of the fun; enter today and be sure to stop by back here on April 7th to see if you won.

 

  • As promised last week, I’m giving away a signed copy of my book. Just leave me a comment below. I’ll draw an entry at random next Friday, April 4, 2014 and the winner will be notified via email.

    Devil Walks Update-1

Again, thanks so much for helping me get the word out about the book by sharing links via social media, reviews or just good old fashioned word of mouth. I’ve provided some links below:

Twitter: @billycoffey

Pinterest: http://www.pinterest.com/mattinglyva/

Facebook Author Page: https://www.facebook.com/billycoffeywriter

Join the Launch Team: Devil Walks in Mattingly Launch Team

An Invitation to Hell

March 24, 2014 by · 3 Comments 

image courtesy of photo bucket.com

image courtesy of photo bucket.com

For the last three months my buddy Kirk has sequestered himself in a rented cabin deep in the Blue Ridge mountains. As far as I can tell, he took with him only the barest of essentials to complete his stated purpose—a dozen bags of deer jerky, four cases of MREs (that’s Meal, Ready to Eat for you non-military folks), three cases of beer, and two dozen protein bars. That should get him through, he says. If not, he’ll just go hunting.

Get him through for what, you ask? Well, now there’s a story.

Kirk is an old high school classmate and friend. Back then he was awkward and shy and always had his head in a book—three characteristics that guaranteed he’d have a tough time until after his senior year. But he sat in front of me in freshman English and, well, some friendships are born of compatibility and others location.

Even then Kirk wanted to be a writer. A published one. But as both his talent and his confidence were lacking, he always qualified “I want to be an author” with “Probably won’t, though.”

Like a lot of high school friends, Kirk and I lost contact after graduation. But then I ran into him at the mall three months ago.. Well, not him. Not the Kirk I knew. This was New and Improved Kirk, and version 2.0 was quite different.

He had found a cure for all that awkward shyness.

Kirk had become a Ranger in the U.S. Army.

Now that he was out, he was back to pursuing his goal of writing a book. And in the spirit of his down-and-dirty Ranger training, he was locking himself in a cabin in the middle of the wilderness to do it.

And you know what? I bet he will. I can almost guarantee it.

There were a lot of reasons why Kirk wasn’t ready to be a writer in high school. You have to grow some and learn some and fail some and hurt a lot first. But more than that, you have to be trained. Kirk told me he’d had his training now. He was a Ranger.

I’d never considered special forces training and training to be a writer to be one and the same, but he was adamant. They’re exactly alike, he said. Both are a process that tests you, then breaks you down, and then shows you whom you truly are.

But to Kirk, his Ranger training gave him one very big advantage—he’d been taught how to be comfortable in misery. He knew how to embrace the thirst and the hunger. How to endure the cold and the heat. And above all, he knew he was being readied for war and that war was hell, which is why his drill instructors trained him to, in his words, “Get the damn job done. Regardless.”

I think he’s onto something.

Because you can (and should) read all the books you can about the craft of writing. You can learn about plot and character and point of view, learn to kill your darling adverbs and adjectives, and speak in present instead passive voice. But until you learn to be comfortable in misery, you will not succeed. Ever.

There are times when sitting down to write is an invitation to pure bliss, when the words leap from your fingers virgin and perfect and you know without doubt they come from the very best part of you. Enjoy those times. They will be few.

Because for the most part, it’s just the opposite. The writing life is not bliss. It’s roaming through the desert of one submission after another, searching for whatever scrap of food or drip of water you can beg, borrow and steal in order to stay alive. It’s enduring the cold of having nothing to say and the heat of knowing you must write anyway.

And above all, writing is war.

It is a war fought not against agents and publishers, but against yourself. It is a war in which the enemy isn’t acceptance, it’s surrender. And yes, it is hell. No doubt about it. But you know what? A writer, a real one, wouldn’t have it any other way.

I haven’t seen Kirk since. For all I know, he’s still up in the mountains writing his book. I like to think he is. I like to think he’s pounding away at those keys and fighting his war.

That he’s getting the damn job done. Regardless.

I like to think that’s what you’re doing, too.

“Devil” makes the rounds: Release week

March 13, 2014 by · Leave a Comment 

Devil Walks Update-3

It’s been a great week (and did you hear the “Whew!” as I wrote that?). The Devil Walks in Mattingly is now officially released, and with it came a flurry of reviews, interviews, and about everything else you could imagine, all made better by good folks like you.

I’ll be doing a giveaway here next week. In the meantime, here’s a sneak peek at some of the things people have been saying:

Interviews:

Publishers Weekly Billy Coffey: Writing a Different Ending

Windows and Paper Walls The Devil Walks in Mattingly-Q&A with Billy Coffey

AndiLit(dot)com Write Naked: A Writers Writer Interview with Billy Coffey

Ordinarily Extraordinary The Devil Walks in Mattingly by Billy Coffey

Flickers of a Faithful FireFly Coffee with Billy Coffey and a Giveaway

Reviews from the Heart Sittin on the porch talking with Billy Coffey!

Reviews:

Publishers Weekly Fiction Book Review: The Devil Walks in Mattingly

The Christian Post Novel Considers the Destructive Nature of Secrets and Regret

Faith, Fiction, Friends “The Devil Walks in Mattingly” by Billy Coffey

Patheos via Karen Spears Zacharias The Devil Walks in Mattingly

Guest spots and other things worth mentioning:

Faith Village The Devil Walks in Mattingly/Billy Coffey: excerpt

Southern Living: The Daily South Five Things You Need to Know in the South Right Now

The Good Men Project A Father’s Long Shadow:Author Billy Coffey speaks about the effect his father had on his life, and where it’s brought him now

Katdish(dot)net In Like a Lion: Favorite book releases in March

***

If you’d like to help spread the word about The Devil Walks in Mattingly, you’re invited to join the Launch Team on Facebook. We’d love to have you!

The Devil Walks in Mattingly

March 11, 2014 by · 7 Comments 

Devil Walks Update-3It’s human nature to want, then get, then want some more. All those shiny things that come into our lives can dull over time. The new gets old. That’s been proven true many times over in my life except for a few precious things. Today is one of those things.

My newest novel is released today—that makes number four, which just so happens to be four more books than I ever thought I’d get the opportunity to write.

The Devil Walks in Mattingly should be available everywhere. It’s a great story, and my favorite so far.

Below I’ve posted links to where you can pick up a copy, just in case you’re in need of something new to read. And as always, I thank each and every one of you who take the time to visit my little cyber cabin in the mountains. None of what I do would be possible without you. Cross my heart and hope to die.

 

 

Available from these fine online retailers and your local brick & mortar book store:

a.com_logo_33bn_logo_33 bam_logo_33Paper Angels at CBD.comPaper Angels at Powells Books indie-logo_33

When the gray seeps in

March 3, 2014 by · 1 Comment 

image courtesy of google images

image courtesy of google images

I blame the writer in me for the messes I sometimes get myself into, all of which I tell myself were begun with the best of intentions. Label something as “research,” for instance, and a writer can give himself permission to do almost anything. “Education” is another good example. We should always be learning something, growing, both in mind and in heart: becoming both better and more.

That thought was running through my head several times over the course of the past couple of weeks, when I decided to sit down to watch three of the most celebrated television shows to have come along in a while. The writing is spectacular, I heard. The ideas immense. Deep characters. Deeper mysteries. All things that appeal to me in my own work. The best way to improve your own craft is to immerse yourself in the craft of others. That’s what I was thinking when I sat down to watch marathons of Breaking Bad, Game of Thrones, and True Detective.

If you’ve yet to see any of these shows or only a couple, I’ll say they are at their core the same thing: Broken people doing some very bad things. Their worlds could not be more dissimilar—the monotony of suburbia, a feudal Dark Age, the stark backwater of the south. And yet the view of each of those worlds is much the same in that each show portrays the world as ultimately meaningless and empty, therefore power is the only means to safety. The critics I’d read and the friends who had recommended those shows were indeed right. The writing really was spectacular, the ideas really were immense. The characters were layered. A few of the mysteries were nearly imponderable.

But still: yuck. After all of that, I needed a shower.

Here’s the thing, though: given bits and pieces of those shows, I don’t think it really would have been a problem. I’m no prude when it comes to entertainment; I’ll admit I sometimes enjoy my share of a gray worldview, though I’d much rather see it from my sofa than in my own life. But immersing yourself in it? Watching over and over until it seeps into the deepest places inside you? Well, that’s a different thing all together.

Yet that’s our culture now, isn’t it? There really doesn’t seem to be any hope out there, whether it’s in music or television or literature. There was maybe a time when the arts existed to prod society onward, to inspire and lift up. More often than not, they now serve as a mirror, showing what we’ve become in a series of melodies or flashing frames. Television, movies, music, and stories have grown increasingly dark because we’ve grown increasingly dark, not the other way around.

The other day, I came across an article written by a neuroscientist that affirmed much of what our mothers once told us: garbage in, garbage out. The article cautioned great care in the sorts of stories we allow ourselves to be exposed to, whether it’s the nightly news fare of war and recession and political meanness, or whatever slasher film is playing down at the local movie theater. Because those stories all carry meanings, and those meanings will, consciously or not, impact the way in which you view life and the world around you for good or bad. If you don’t know how to draw something positive out of what happens in life, the neural pathways you need too appreciate anything positive will never fire.

That’s evolution, the neuroscientist said. Maybe. I’d call it human nature.

It’s easy to succumb to the notion that everything is random, meaningless. It’s easy to fall into the trap of believing that the world is too big and too far gone to ever be able to make a difference in it. The key is not to rise above, but merely survive (which, by the way, is my theory of why the zombie culture is so prevalent now). What’s hard is to believe. What’s hard is to carry on. It is to find purpose in where you are and in what you’re doing, no matter how insignificant it seems. It is to find dignity in this thing we call life, and to bring beauty to it.

ANSWERS

February 10, 2014 by · 1 Comment 

Screen Shot 2014-02-10 at 10.55.39 AMTo a certain extent, ritual plays a part in every life. We all adhere to our own ceremonies to mark the important occasions that come along. It can be something as extravagant as a neighbor of mine plans every Thanksgiving, when his home becomes a meeting place for family scattered to all corners of the country. Or it can be as small as the shot of whiskey a friend of mine takes at 4:12 in the afternoon each July 27, in remembrance of his father’s passing.

My own ritual—smaller than either of those I mentioned, yet to me no less significant—revolves around cleaning out my desk before the start of every novel. It is no mammoth undertaking, usually requiring no more than an hour’s time and involving no more than shelving books and filing papers. But I like to start fresh with each story I write, and nothing says fresh more than an empty slab of oak upon which to write.

As I cleaned and filed and shelved this morning, I came upon a tattered manila envelope at the bottom of a stack of papers. ANSWERS had been written diagonally across the front in red permanent ink, in a hand I can scarcely recognize now. The inside bulged with notes and scraps; newspaper clippings; magazine articles; letters written to me and copies of letters I’d written to others. Some were dated as recent as last year. The oldest had 4 Oct. 89 scrawled along the top.

I spread them out before me, reading each one until I remembered, trying to place the where and why of myself—what it had been that led me to include those stories there, in my envelope. I am not to the point that I can say I have lived many years upon this earth, have accumulated many things along the way, and yet I have always counted that envelope among my most important possessions. Because, what you see, what rests in there are all the questions I wish to ask God when I am able to see Him face to face. They are the things I wish to know.

I will stop short of calling that envelope EVIDENCE FOR PROSECUTION, though I admit it was very nearly labeled that instead of ANSWERS. And whom was I determined to prosecute, way back in the very dawn of my adulthood? God, of course. And for the single reason that I did not approve of the way He did things.

Laugh at that all you will. Take a look inside my envelope, though. You may change your mind.

You’ll see an obituary for a high school classmate of mine, who was killed in a freak accident not two years after our graduation—a bright, funny, loving boy, full of life until he wasn’t.

You’ll find a story of a missionary tortured and killed.

A small girl who wandered from home and became lost in the woods, never to be found.

A single mother of three, dying of inoperable cancer.

Accounts of oppression, disease, and injustice. Diary entries of heartbreak and doubt. Themes of death and evil. Tales that over the years forced me to wonder what you or anyone else have wondered at one time or another—

How can a good and loving God allow such things?

At a certain point, I understood there would be no answers to that question on this side of life. People have been questioning the origins of evil and it’s place with God for thousands of years, and we are not too far down the road to answering it. So I’ve kept all my questions here, in this envelope.

How exactly I would get that file to heaven with me was something I never quite figured out. In the past few years, I’ve devoted less and less time to pondering that problem. Not because evil no longer bothers me—it does, perhaps more now than ever—but because of the very likely possibility that I won’t care much about my questions in heaven. I’ll be too full of joy. I’ll be too busy spending time with all those who passed on before me, and preparing for those yet to arrive.

I still don’t understand a great many things in life. I suppose I always won’t. I don’t know why there must be cancer, and why that cancer must take so many innocent people. I don’t know why there is evil, or why there seems to be so much more of it than good.

I don’t know why God does the things He does, or allows what He allows.

But I can do one thing. I can approach those questions now as though they were parts of a story, one I would write just as God writes His own upon all of creation. And I would say—not as a pastor or theologian or philosopher, but as a storyteller—that it is far more beautiful a thing to be redeemed than be innocent. It is far more amazing for fight for peace in a fallen world than to maintain peace in a perfect one.

And it is far more noble to spend your life in search of something than have nothing to search for at all.

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